Welcome to a day in my life. I can't guarantee that this will be an exciting read for anyone. My life is filled with all the mundane activities of a stay-at-home-mom just trying to raise her three sons to be the best men they can be.

Friday, April 17, 2009

An interesting conversation

So, I'm reading this book "Look Me in the Eye - My Life with Aspergers" written by John Elder Robison. He's a man who lived the first 40 years of his life as a "social misfit" not knowing why he was different from others and the struggles he faced because of it. At 40 he was finally diagnosed with Aperger's Syndrome (a syndrome that is on the Autism spectrum ... and is very similar to Nonverbal Learning Disorder which Matt has).

Last night I read a chapter on small talk where John talks about the problem that he has with conversing with others. Small talk is something that people with Asperger's and NLD people have great difficulty with because it's just not logical and factual. He talked about talking with a female friend. The friend says to him "One of my girlfriends is having an affair and the guy rides a motorcycle just like yours." He then goes into his thought process in coming up with an appropriate response to that statement.

A neuro-typical person might have been curious about the affair, but would have realized that the focus of the statement was the motorcycle and would have responded accordingly. After going through various responses in his mind, none of which really had anything to do with the motorcycle, the responses he came up with varied from "is she saying I should have an affair because I have a motorcycle" to "should I know this guy because he is only one of 5% of people who ride motorcycles?" In a mater of moments he needed to decide what he thought was the best response which ended up being "Which girlfriend is that" and then was surprised that his friend found that too intrusive. (myself, I thought he chose the best of all the responses that he went through in his mind.)

So, this morning I was talking to Matt about the book and about small talk. I told him about the author's difficulty reading the statement. I posed the statement to Matt in the tone of voice that it was said in that social setting. After a few seconds pause (where I could see that he, himself, was going though his options in his mind) came up with his response to the statement. "what does a motorcycle have to do with your friend having an affair."

I tried to get him to see that the purpose of the statement was the motorcycle, not the affair and that the response should be about the bike. After a few more minutes of our conversation, he still didn't get it.

John finishes the chapter with a very intersting point:
"My conversational difficulties highlight a problem Aspergians (and I'll add NLD people) face everyday. A person with an obvious disability - for example, someone in a wheelchair - is treated compassionately because his handicap is obvious. No one turns to a guy in a wheelchair and says, "Quick! let's run across the street!" And when he can't run across the street, no one says, "What's his problem?" They offer to help him across the street.
With me, though, there is no exteral sign that I am conversationally handicapped. So folks hear some converational misstep and say, "What an arrogant jerk!" I look forward to the day when my handicap will afford me the same respect accorded to the guy in a wheelchair. And if the respect comes with a preferred parking space, I won't turn it down."

I'm sure Matt will look forward to that day too.


  1. Pardon me, but can you explain how and why the motorcycle shold have been understood to be the focus?

    Of all the people who have anaylsed that passage, your take on it is unique


  2. Hi John.
    The reason why I feel that the motorcycle was the focus in that statement is that you're talking about small talk. In that situation, the topic is lighter and not too indepth or heavy and so the topic wasn't really about the affair, but rather trying to find a common ground with you, which is the motorcycle. When I read that statement, I was curious about the affair, but immediately saw that she was trying to relate to you through the motorcycle.

    I actually found it odd that she would throw the affair in there.

    Of course, that one statement is standing alone in your book and was part of a greater conversation which I wasn't privy too, so I'm aware that it could be totally out of context.

    Thanks for posting on my blog. I'm really enjoying your book and find so much of it relatable to a mother who is raising a son with Nonverbal Learning Disorder.

  3. I had never considered the motorcycle may have been thrown into the story as a means of connecting with me.

    Later on in that same passage I relate a very similar exchange between two females where it was a car, not a bike, and there seemed to be a rather different interpretation.

    The point is, this social stuff is quite complex to one who can't read the other person instinctively

  4. It was a little different in that it wasn't small talk because they were too woman chatting in a restaurant over dinner so there was a closer relationship between the two. ...but, you'll notice that in response to the same kind of statement, the other woman's first response is "cool." She wasn't saying cool about the affair, but the car. Then she asks about the affair because that was actually the more interesting part of the statement. Because of the relationship they had established, and that they were chatting together over dinner, it was more socially acceptable (and likely expected) in their situation to delve into the affair.

    Wow! You're making me think. (not something I have to do too often around here, LOL)

  5. Barb... thank you for this food for thought. Handicaps that are visually evident do allow us to put things into perspective whereas those issues that are not visually evident are missed causing us to take statements and actions the wrong way. To the frustration and disappointment of a speaker, I fear I may have taken statements the wrong way by being ignorant of the unknown issue behind the statement.

  6. Thanks, John, for your input. I find it very interesting to understand language in a social context. I read a book many years ago about this particular topic - Language and Social Context. I must see if I can find it to read if these kind of issues are dealt with.

    The other part of social dialogue that is difficult to grasp is the tone of a person;s voice, the gestures and body langguage. These can give a statement a totally different meaning.

  7. Interesting indeed. My dh has a new coworker who they think might have Aspergers but has never come out and said it. My dh has talked about some quirks that he has when they are making small talk in the shop between the guys and it now kind of makes better sense.

    Kind of neat that the author of the book could comment on your point of view. :)

  8. Interesting excerpt from the book, and interesting conversation between you and Matt. It's also great that John joined the dialog. As Dave noted, it's easy to completely misunderstand why a person says something that we interpret as wildly inappropriate.

    The focus of my dissertation (years ago now) was the analysis of people's discourse during a series of school board meetings. I don't recall any statements that seemed out of place. If I had, I wonder if I would have sought the subtle interpretation that a statement by someone with Asperger's or NVLD would require. I probably would have missed it completely.

  9. This is such a great post! Thanks for reminding me about the struggles some people have that are often grossly misunderstood!
    It's really neat that the author of the book was able join the conversation.

  10. What wonderful insight this post and the comments has afforded me! We who work with students who have Asperger's and NVLD need all the insights we can get. This book was a huge eye-opener to me.

  11. I join these sort of conversations whenever I can, and I encourage you to visit me here at jerobison.blogspot.com or my blog at Psychology Today. They tend to have dirreent posts.


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